China, the American Jobs Plan, and the Impact of ‘Strategic Competition’

AuthorEdward Ashbee
Published date01 June 2022
Date01 June 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Jadavpur Journal of
International Relations
26(1) 62 –80, 2022
© 2022 Jadavpur University
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/09735984221086157
China, the American
Jobs Plan, and the
Impact of ‘Strategic
Edward Ashbee1
Commentators were struck by the ambition of the American Jobs Plan,
the US$2.6 trillion infrastructure proposals put forward by President
Biden during 2021. The article considers the reasons why, despite
hyper-partisanship and entrenched institutional obstacles that were
to doom many of the proposals, the Biden administration put forward
plans on a scale that dwarfed those of earlier reforming presidents.
It argues that a large part of the answer lies in the character of framing
processes and shifting perceptions of China. A policy that cannot be
framed in ways deemed to be credible cannot secure traction. The US
turn against Beijing and the concept of ‘strategic competition’ provided
the Biden administration and Democrats with the basis for constructing
a frame that legitimized their hopes of modernizing and transforming
the structural character of the American economy so as to fend off the
economic and strategic challenge posed by China. Although much of the
Plan did not come to legislative fruition, this was a frame that the Biden
White House saw as a way of building a broad coalitional bloc that could
advance a progressive economic agenda.
1 Department of International Economics, Government and Business, Copenhagen
Business School, Frederiksberg, Denmark
Corresponding author:
Edward Ashbee, Department of International Economics, Government and Business,
Copenhagen Business School, Porcelænshaven 24, 2000 Frederiksberg, Denmark.
Ashbee 63
China, USA, infrastructure, Belt and Road Initiative, framing
During the early months of the Biden presidency, there were frequent
references to the radicalism of the measures he chose to pursue.
In particular, in putting forward the American Jobs Plan, which formed
part of the Build Back Better Agenda, Biden went beyond immediate
pandemic relief and chose to embrace calls for very large-scale
infrastructural spending. This Plan, which rested upon US$2.2 trillion
increased government spending over 10 years and US$400 billion in tax
credits. It was ‘the single largest investment in American jobs since
World War Two’ (Moody’s Analytics 2021; The White House 2021c).
After prolonged wrangling in Congress, some elements within the
Plan were incorporated within the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, which
became law in mid-November 2021; thirty-two Republicans in the
House of Representatives and the Senate backed the measure. A second
infrastructure bill (the Build Back Better Act), which was estimated to
cost US$3.5 trillion and had a very much broader understanding of
‘infrastructure’ encompassing childcare, health provision, employment
opportunities, and measures to address climate change failed when it not
only faced Republican opposition but also lacked support from
Democrats in the Senate (Diaz 2021).
Nonetheless, a question arises. How and why did the White House
believe that it could put forward and ‘sell’ a plan on this size and scale in
the first place? Earlier, the Obama transition team had quickly retreated
from tentative suggestions that there should be a fiscal stimulus package
of more than a trillion dollars and instead settled for US$787 billion. The
discussions within Obama’s circles appeared to have quickly concluded
that numbers approaching a trillion dollars were not politically feasible.
Part of the answer lies in different structures of political opportunity.
Despite his caution, Emanuel commented about the 2008 crisis:
‘You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that
is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before’
(Seib 2008). For a period, the crisis seemed to augur the demise of
neoliberalism, the return of Keynesian economics, and a new dawn for

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